Shorties and Scholars Agree, the Word Is Rap (Published 1997) (2023)


Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

  • Send any friend a story

    As a subscriber, you have 10 gift articles to give each month. Anyone can read what you share.

By Lynette Holloway

See the article in its original context from
January 5, 1997


Section 1, Page

25Buy Reprints

View on timesmachine

TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers.

AYO, listen up.

The four-one-one is that the second volume of the Random House Historical Dictionary of Slang promises to kick more flavor from the world of hip-hop. So even those of you chillin' in butter-smooth apartments on Park Avenue can be down with the latest street slang.

The well-received first volume, published in 1994 and covering letters A through G, was heavy on Valley Girl-speak. But the next installment, which covers H through O and is due this summer, lends more scholarship to hip-hop, with hundreds of examples gleaned from rap lyrics. ''This volume will have more of the language, not only because the vocabulary has grown but it has become more widespread,'' said Jesse T. Sheidlower, the dictionary editor at Random House Reference and Information Publishing.

Of course, black slang has always contributed to the American vernacular -- a point that has been raised in the last few weeks as the nation debates the use of ebonics, or black English, in Oakland, Calif., classrooms. But Mr. Sheidlower and those in the industry suggest something else might be going on: the enduring popularity of hip-hop has lifted the latest incarnation of black slang from the streets to new heights in pop culture.

''More so than ever, the language is everywhere,'' said Bill Adler, a record producer and one-time spokesman for groups like Public Enemy. ''In a box-office hit 'Independence Day,' you have a rapper, Will Smith, playing the lead role. Nobody blinked when he spoke mostly hip-hop. It's on television commercials for hamburgers and sodas.''

So how does an erudite editor figure out the latest slang? Easy. Mr. Sheidlower watches a lot of ''Martin,'' the Fox sitcom starring the comedian Martin Lawrence. He also reads liner notes and listens to rappers like Notorious B.I.G., Snoop Doggy Dogg and Mobb Deep. He has street informants whose names he prefers to keep on the down low. And he meets with students, reads publications like The Source and Rap Pages, and surfs Internet offerings like ''The Totally Unofficial Rap Dictionary'' (http:// dictionary.html).

His methods for gathering information are no different from most shorties -- that is, young people -- from the 'hood.

''I watch Fox and UPN-9,'' said Jose Lopez, a 14-year-old from Harlem. ''Most of their shows at night are up on the latest words, no diggity.''

And as shorties and authors point out, the vocabulary is constantly being twisted and turned into fresh configurations.

''The language is very transitory,'' said Tom Dalzell, the author of ''Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang,'' published last fall by Merriam-Webster. ''When you take a snapshot of what's being said in October, it may not be said a month later. The really powerful words move around quickly now. MTV and VH1 are the greatest levelers of slang today.''

Just ask Charlene Ortiz, 14, from Chelsea about the staying power of words and phrases. In the fall, ''No doubt'' was a favorite way of saying, ''That's the truth.'' Now, it's ''No diggity,'' she said, as in Blackstreet's current hit single ''No Diggity.''

''It just depends on what you're listening to,'' Ms. Ortiz said. But nobody is clowned for using a word that's passe, she said. You might get a look, though.

The ephemeral nature of street language makes the task of documenting words difficult, Mr. Sheidlower admits. But he and the dictionary's chief editor, J. E. Lighter, use a fairly simple measure: words are included if they have been used at least twice in more than one written source.

''We don't look at staying power,'' Mr. Sheidlower said. ''It is a historical dictionary. We will include anything that is considered to have real currency in American English. Once words have currency in a language, they tend to stick around for a while anyway.''

Among the entries will be ''kickin','' as in smelly, to relax or to give. ''Mad,'' as in beautiful, very or a lot. ''Peeps,'' as in friends, and ''peep,'' to look at, or to be aware of. ''Mack,'' as in playboy, pimp, street-smart businessman or to rap to.

By the way, ''ayo,'' which was not featured in the first Random House volume, will not likely be included in any revisions because it's derivative of ''hey'' and ''yo,'' Mr. Sheidlower said. But you can find it in ''Flappers 2 Rappers,'' under greetings and farewells.

Exactly who thinks up slang words and expressions in the first place is murky. Slang ''springs from an incredibly vast array of sources, such as crime, violence, gambling, the military, alcohol, drug use and so on,'' Mr. Lighter said.

''Since most of these areas are largely male-dominated, it might be safely assumed that men have created much of the slang that we hear,'' he continued. ''As far as finding a specific person responsible for a specific term, that is quite rare.''

Rappers like Posdnuos, 27, with the hip-hop group De La Soul, say they pick up most of their vocabulary from the street, though they also try to come up with their own slang and usage. For example, he says De La Soul decided to use ''pretty'' to mean ''ugly,'' and they deliberately distort grammar, as in ''Stakes Is High,'' their 1996 album.

''We honestly do borrow from the street,'' Posdnuos said. ''It's hard not to. It's just recycled words from our moms' times and our pops' times.''

Indeed, much of the language shaped by rappers was popular ''back in the day,'' in the 1980's, 70's and 60's, and probably goes back much farther. Words like ''fly'' and ''homey'' are more old-school than most people think; they date at least to the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mr. Dalzell said, adding that they had pretty much the same meanings they have today (''cool'' and ''from the neighborhood'').

The word ''mack'' has been around for more than 20 years. The Random House dictionary cites as an example Tom Wolfe, who used the word in ''Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers'' in 1970. Mr. Wolfe wrote, ''I don't want you women to be macking with the brothers if they ain't tending to business.''

Max Julien, the title character in the 1973 film ''The Mack,'' used the word to describe playboys and players. It resurfaced about three years ago, Mr. Sheidlower said, and today is widely used among rappers.

Random House quotes the rapper Notorious B.I.G.'s 1994 release ''Big Poppa,'' in which the word ''mack'' is used: ''Most of these niggas think they be macking but they be actin' -- who they attractin' with that line, what's your name, what's your sign?''

Mr. Lighter and Mr. Sheidlower also try to unravel the various meanings of the word ''nigger,'' whose use, they say, has grown.

''It's the most provocative word in English,'' Mr. Sheidlower said. ''It arouses so much passion. You can't joke about it, although there are certain uses among blacks that are considered nonobjectionable. We go to great length tracing the detail of it.''

Rappers use the word to show solidarity and to describe close friends, he said. It is also interchangeable with ''guy'' or ''man.''

The book mentions a song by Mobb Deep, which refers to the clothing designer Tommy Hilfiger, whose designs are favored by hip-hop artists. ''Tommy Hil was my nigger and others couldn't figure how me and Hilfiger used to move through with vigor,'' the lyrics say.

The use of ''four-one-one'' to mean ''information'' came to Mr. Sheidlower and Mr. Lighter's attention too late to make it into the first volume. But it will definitely be in there when they update Volume 1, Mr. Sheidlower said.

Four-one-one was popularized by the rapper Mary J. Blige in 1992 with her release ''What's the 411?'' It is still widely used by rappers.

In the 1995 film ''Clueless,'' Alicia Silverstone used the expression four-one-one as she gave the rundown on a teacher she was trying to set up with another teacher. ''Keepin' it real'' also popped up in the movie, a farce about rich teen-agers who also spout Valley Girl slang.

''For a very long time, slang and any sort of examination of it was frowned upon,'' said Mr. Sheidlower, explaining the scholarly interest in hip-hop. ''The attitude was, Why do slang when there's old English grammar to worry about? That sort of attitude is now changing. The things that used to be ignored or condemned are now being studied.''

Yo, Peep Some Mad Flavor

Following is a sampler of new hip-hop slang, as heard in rap music, on television and on the street:

BOO: term of endearment for a boyfriend or girlfriend. ''She used to leave school early just to see her boo.''

BUTTER: smooth, nice. ''That's a butter leather jacket.''

DIGITS: telephone number. ''I have unlisted digits.''

DOG, DOGG, DAWG: 1. feet. 2. buddy. ''Michael Jordan, my dogg, uses his dogs and hands to earn big bucks.''

DOWN LOW (ALSO D.L.): quiet. ''The couple kept their marriage plans on the d.l. for months.''

FLAVOR: style. ''He has mad flavor.''

FOUR-ONE-ONE: information. ''What's the four-one-one on him?''

FRONT: 1. to put up a front. 2. to embarrass someone. ''He's unpopular because he's always frontin'.''

HELLA: very (mostly a West Coast term). ''New York City was hella cold last winter.''

HOUSE: to defeat. ''Evander Holyfield housed Mike Tyson in their last fight.''

KEEPIN' IT REAL: 1. to stay black. 2. to be yourself. 3. to stay cool. ''He shaved his head because he wanted to keep it real.''

MAD: 1. beautiful. 2. very. 3. a lot. ''Michael Jordan has mad skills.''

PEEP: to look at, to be aware of. ''Ayo, did you peep the Knicks game last night?''

PEEPS: 1. friends, people. ''My peeps always look out for me.''

RECOGNIZE: take notice of. ''You'd better recognize,'' the rapper said about his skills.

REPRESENT: to do something well. ''Michael Jordan represents on the basketball court.''

SCRILLA: money (mostly a West Coast word). ''The film maker earns mad scrilla.''

SHORTY: 1. girlfriend 2. youth. ''He picked up his shorty in a bright red Jeep.''

TO GET (FILL IN THE BLANK) ON: to do something well, or just do something. You can ''get your groove on'' if you're dancing, ''get your strut on'' if you're walking, ''get your grub on'' if you're eating.


Continue reading the main story

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Ms. Lucile Johns

Last Updated: 12/03/2022

Views: 6016

Rating: 4 / 5 (41 voted)

Reviews: 80% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Ms. Lucile Johns

Birthday: 1999-11-16

Address: Suite 237 56046 Walsh Coves, West Enid, VT 46557

Phone: +59115435987187

Job: Education Supervisor

Hobby: Genealogy, Stone skipping, Skydiving, Nordic skating, Couponing, Coloring, Gardening

Introduction: My name is Ms. Lucile Johns, I am a successful, friendly, friendly, homely, adventurous, handsome, delightful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.